IN one sense, Shuichi Kato is characteristically Japanese. As his visitors remove their shoes in the entryway of his modest home in the once-rural outskirts of Tokyo, he offers them slippers. With ritual bows, he exchanges business cards. Partway into the interview that follows, his wife slips into the room with tea and cookies. But the entryway shelves are filled with English-language books. His business cards are hand-painted in China. The interview, in English, is enriched by quotations from Bertrand Russell and Graham Greene. And the tea is a sweet, strong, fruity decoction, quite unlike the pale green brew usually served on such occasions.
For Mr. Kato (pronounced CA-toh) is hardly typical of his countrymen. Sometimes described as ``the moral conscience of Japan,'' he is outspoken but calm, keenly logical but deeply intuitive. He makes it clear that the carefully calibrated traditions and attitudes of Japan - and of much of the rest of the world - will need to undergo serious changes in the 21st century.
``Most people are not very much concerned, seriously, with other people's suffering,'' he says. ``By and large it seems to me that the whole of society is geared to domination and manipulation - rather than to compassion.''
He is concerned that the news and advertising media are constantly portraying a ``striving for power, money, and domination of other people.'' Rarely does the public hear about a government or a corporation ``doing something motivated by a compassion for other people's suffering.''
How, he is asked, can the world bring more of the moral conscience to bear on the issues before it?
Anticipating problems `IT'S very difficult,'' he responds. ``Perhaps, to fight back, we should make efforts to take control, to resist that desire [to manipulate] - and also to help, to encourage, to reinforce all actions motivated by compassion for others.''
``The 21st century will be inhabited by people whom we don't know, whose mentalities and abilities are very different,'' he continues. However much we may wish for ``blueprints'' of the future, ``we cannot get rid of our limitations and our scope as 20th-century man.'' Yet, although we ``don't know the way in which future people will handle the problems, perhaps we can anticipate to some extent the problems themselves.''
The nuclear issue `I THINK the history of nuclear arms from 1945 until now makes [inevitable the] progress in quality and increases in quantity. I don't see any reason in the future why this technological progress will stop.''
For several reasons, then, he expects that the future will be ``more dangerous'' and ``less secure.'' First, there will be ``a greater probability of errors and mistakes'' as technology grows more complicated. Second, there will be an ``obvious gap'' between machines and the people controlling them. Although technology has been developing rapidly, he sees little progress in ``the whole social organization and ability of the human race [to] control [its] own products.''
Equally troublesome, he notes, will be nuclear waste disposal. He worries, in particular, about the ``accumulated effect'' of nuclear waste, unless nations find immediate solutions.
But where will the next century get its energy? For Kato, that question raises profound philosophical issues.
``The question is whether we really do need so much consumption of energy,'' he says. ``I am opposed to the view that one should accept as granted this ever-increasing consumption of energy.''
He admits that the replacement of nuclear power with alternatives - such as solar energy - probably cannot be done in ``an economically feasible way'' in the near future. We should ``rather [try] to find out how to live with diminished consumption of energy.''
He acknowledges the difficulties facing nations in unilaterally giving up nuclear energy - since such a move could well undercut their ``whole competitive ability in the international market.'' Needed, he says, is an agreement whereby all nations agree to forgo the use of nuclear power. ``If the highly industrialized countries can come to an agreement, no [single] country will be damaged. That will be the solution and, I would like to stress, the only solution.''
The environment `THIS whole country is getting like a factory,'' he says, speaking of Japan. ``The habitable space is getting narrower and narrower, and all the landscape [is being] destroyed - natural landscape and historical landscape.''
The problem is particularly acute in Japan, where 120 million people crowd onto the fraction of habitable land in a largely mountainous country. ``If everything goes on this way,'' Kato insists, ``perhaps [in the 21st century] all developed countries will become like Japan. It's a question of time, if you go on forever.''
Kato ranks the problem of pollution and environmental degradation second only to the nuclear threat. He is particularly concerned about the disappearance of forests - taking as his somewhat facetious example the ``waste of paper'' in the developed countries. ``We don't need to publish so much and print so much.''
``I am also responsible, because I have published some books,'' he adds with a chuckle, ``and I don't pretend that these books are absolutely necessary for human beings. So therefore this is a waste of paper.''
Beneath his jest, however, is a serious concern. ``Only a very tiny proportion of the world's population is wasting paper,'' he says, ``namely [in] the United States and Japan and Europe. Somewhere we have to get the thing down. In Southeast Asia, Canada, and Siberia, the woods are [being] cut down to produce paper to export to [the richer nations].''
The developing nations KATO'S third major agenda item concerns the ``widening gap'' between the developed and the developing nations. It is a problem complicated, in his view, by excessive population growth, by lack of food and a poor distribution system, and by factors of the international economy.
To illustrate the problem, he points to the shipping of surplus wheat from Canada, the United States, and Australia to Africa. He worries that ``this kind of aid by the North to the South is in a sense an extreme form of anti-protectionist export - or, to use more brutal words, a kind of dumping.'' It is extreme, he adds, ``because the price is zero.''
``If the food price is zero,'' he explains, ``then no domestic industry can compete'' - especially in nations where productivity is low and agriculture is especially hard work. The temptation in those nations, he says, is to quit agriculture and simply depend on aid for survival. That leads to ``a vicious circle'' where worsening situations demand even more aid.
That is not an argument, he insists, against aid. In fact, he finds the low level of support flowing from North to South ``scandalous.'' The United Nations, he notes, has called for contributions from industrial nations equal to one percent of their gross national products (GNP) to help close the North-South gap. ``Very few countries in the North are coming [up] to this one percent limit,'' he says.
Particularly troubling to Kato are the attitudes behind this lack of aid. Industrial nations are ``eager'' to spend more than one percent of GNP for arms, he says - even though such spending produces only ``vague'' security against threats that never materialize. Yet the problem in developing nations is immediate. ``People are actually dying today,'' he says, ``and not even one percent of GNP is spent to save them.''
If the problem is not checked, what will be the effect on the industrial world?
Kato foresees, in the 21st century, a threat of what he calls a ``Palestinian syndrome'' - a volatile, explosive situation in some desperately poor nations, growing out of ``the absence of hope for a better tomorrow.''
``If today the situation is not very satisfactory, but you have hope for tomorrow,'' he says, ``you can live. But if you cut [off] the hope for tomorrow, then the situation will change.'' That, he says, leads to despair, and ``despair produces violence.'' Such violence - especially in the form of terrorism - cannot be controlled by political oppression, which only makes it worse.
``The heart of the matter is despair and no hope.'' Insofar as the developed nations cannot provide a sense of hope, they should ``expect that a violent reaction will come. I call it the Palestinianization of the world.''
Education reform `THINKING, in my sense, is the search for truth,'' says Kato. But in Japan and other developed countries where a student's entire future seems to hang on the results of a university entrance examination, there is often ``no sense of criticism, no habit of thinking thoughts.'' Instead, truth is viewed as something contained in a textbook - which, if the student is to be successful on the examination, must be absorbed without questioning.
In particular, he feels that the Japanese educational system has produced ``masses of obedient, reasonable, and gentle people who lack the capacity of thinking on their own.'' In the past this has produced ``an ideal working force for Japanese industry'' which was aimed at producing cars. It is not, however, a recipe for success in ``innovating the top technology.''
Part of the problem, as he sees it, is an overemphasis on competition, which requires conformity. ``Competition is only possible when you are doing the same thing,'' he explains. ``When you are running, everybody's running. How can the Olympic swimming champion and the 100-meter running champion compete? These are two different things. And nobody says which one is better and which one is second-rate.''
By the same token, schools should break away from the need to measure everyone by the same standard. They should allow greater diversity. They should not insist that every student compete in the same tests.
``In the 21st century, Japan's future will be in the top exploration of the new fields,'' says Kato. And that will require broad-minded and original thinkers. ``This traditional educational system,'' he concludes, ``is not good for that.''
Finally, Kato is interested in the future of the arts - especially poetry, painting, and music. Over the past few centuries, he says, the trend in all the arts has been a steady pushing against the ``physio-anatomical limitation'' of human vision and hearing - by incorporating a progressively wider spectrum of sounds into music, for example, from Bach and Mozart through Wagner and Schoenberg and on to the present.
Where will the arts go in the future?
Kato, with examples from history fresh in his mind, finds it difficult to say. Imagine, he says, standing ``at the beginning of the 19th century'' and trying to foresee the development of the arts. ``Even a genius,'' he notes, ``couldn't anticipate what kinds of objects would be [displayed today] in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. No philosopher was able to anticipate this.''
He notes, however, that ``the trend must stop sometime.'' The 21st century, he says, will not see a continuing increase in the range of sounds or colors - simply because humanity is already ``almost to the border'' of what it can apprehend.
The result may be a return to more classical forms of artistic expression. ``Very likely,'' he says, ``the 21st century will be not a century during which the variety of the materials of artistic expression will increase.''
``We can't anticipate,'' he concludes. ``And that is good.''
The moralist as maverick
Shuichi Kato appears to be having a lover's quarrel with Japan.
On the one hand, he is the author of a prize-winning history of Japanese literature - and enough other writing (most of it about Japan) to fill 15 volumes of his collected works.
On the other hand, he cherishes his ``marginal'' position in Japanese society - where, as moralist and social critic, he speaks out frequently against consumerism, groupism, educational inflexibility, male chauvinism, and other deep-rooted elements in Japanese culture.
How did a society he describes as ``subtle, rigid, [and] controlled'' produce such a maverick?
The son of a doctor, he recalls that ``I was very often sick as a child, so that I stayed home. I didn't go to the school for many months. And this was a kind of a sanctuary.''
Then, in 1951 he ``escaped'' to France and, later, to Canada. ``Altogether after the war,'' he says, ``I have spent my life half outside of Japan.''
Trained as a doctor, Kato held a position as hematologist with the Tokyo University Clinic until 1959. Having written poetry and fiction since the end of World War II, however, he found medicine too specialized.
So around 1960, as he told an interviewer last year, he gave up medicine and ``decided to become a specialist in non-specialization.'' Since then he has spent much of his time teaching - at Yale, Brown, and Cambridge universities, as well as at universities in West Germany, Switzerland, and Mexico. From 1976 to 1985 he was a professor of comparative culture at Sophia University in Tokyo.
Next: Andrei Voznesensky, poet, April 17.